Joan Rivers
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BWW Reviews: JOAN RIVERS at Tennessee Performing Arts Center

Outspoken. Incisive. Biting. Irreverent. Courageous. Hilarious. Profane...those are just some of the words that describe the energetic, peripatetic, hard-working (we had to add just a few more) Joan Rivers. The comedy legend brought her superbly outrageous act to the stage of Andrew Jackson Hall of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center on Friday night, February 2, delighting the packed house with her trademark wit and ribald sense of humor.

In the process, the 77-year-old actress/comedienne put all of her immense talents on display, lambasting everyone from Helen Keller to Jackie O, from Anne Frank to Kate Gosselin, in some 90 minutes of non-stop action that left audience members gasping for breath as they rewarded her with the laughter than obviously sustains the multi-hyphenate personality. As she lacerates the larger-than-life pop culture icons our society idolizes, she does it because (as she tells us succinctly and matter-of-factly) she "hates hypocrites."

Admirable is another good word for Joan Rivers, social critic, fashion commentator and pop culture historian.

A star of stage (she's been a Tony nominee for Sally Marr and Her Escorts), screen (she wrote the acclaimed screenplay for the film comedy Rabbit Test - Google it if you don't recall the movie), television (with a string of hits that stretches from her first appearances on The Tonight Show to her wildly popular Fashion Police on E! and her new reality series with her daughter, Melissa: Joan Knows Best on WE), and Oscar-worthy documentary film (her Joan Rivers, A Piece of Work was somehow left off the list of Academy Award nominees) she's a whirling dervish of boundlessly, pent-up energy and never-ending brainstorming. And I didn't even mention the successful jewelry business that she launched on QVC, thus opening the floodgates for celebrities wanting to cash in on their fame.

Trailblazer. There's another good descriptor for Joan Rivers, who never slows down, whether she's onstage or off.

For those who've only seen Joan Rivers on TV, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect in her stage act, but you're missing so fucking much if you've never seen her in front of a live audience. She looks like a million (no, make that $500 million) - have we mentioned how great she looks, costumed as we want our fashion icons to be dressed, wearing sexy heels, and sporting her trademark blonde coiffure, she's one fine-looking grandma - as she never stops during her hour-and-a-half set, moving around the stage like a prize-fighter who knows exactly how to land knockout punch after knockout punch, even when backed by an orchestra whose members are there primarily to enjoy the show.

"I don't sing," she says. "You don't want to hear me sing. Deaf people cover their eyes when I sing!"

The orchestra is there, she tells her audince, because "the people who run this place...who run this TPAC...insisted I had to have an orchestra - and they're making me pay for them!"

No one is immune to her laser-sharp comedy, as she attacks with relish such sacred cows as the aforementioned Helen Keller and Anne Frank (it's hard to explain, but your sides are sure to be splitting after she calls them out), as well as Nashville native (and, perhaps, the ultimate sacred cow of the moment) Oprah Winfrey.

Opening her act with a litany of put-downs to the celebrities of these particular 15 minutes - everyone from Nashville's adopted favorite Australian daughter Nicole Kidman (who's friends with her daughter Melissa) to Renee Zelweger are in her cross-hairs, as are Bristol Palin, Julie Andrews (her impression of a throaty Andrews singing "the hills are alive" over the phone is downright hilarious), the Kardashians (her take on Khloe is particularly scathing, withering and on-target) and actress Claire Danes and her awards season companion Temple Grandin. Joan Rivers says exactly what we're all thinking, but are just too stinking cowardly to say out loud.

Perhaps that's what makes her so appealing to her beloved gays - whom, she claims, will make any show successful, because we laugh at anything she says (unless, of course, it's about such sacred cows as Barbra Streisand, Cher, and any of the plethora of other gay icons) - even while she's ordering "cripples, old people, Chinese women, children, people who even know a child, blind people," and so many others out of the theater in order to ensure that her act goes on as planned. Of course, no one ever leaves (unless they have no sense of humor at all) and one senses that to be targeted by Joan Rivers is to be placed among some pantheon of greats who've been skewered by the very best.

Joan Rivers lambastes all of society's sacred cows, and she's willing to dip her toe over every line ever drawn in the sand - just to make you laugh. And she does so gloriously.

But there's something that makes you realize, deep down - hell, it's not that deep down actually - that Joan Rivers' brash exterior masks a compassionate heart of gold. In fact, despite her protestations that old people should get the hell out of the theatre ("because I hate you, you're old," she screams), she works tirelessly and effortlessly on behalf of The National Osteoporosis Foundation. She donated all the $500K she won on Celebrity Apprentice to God's Love We Deliver (a charity that delivers meals to persons living with HIV/AIDS) and she supports Guide Dogs for The Blind, despite her insistence that blind people shouldn't be in her audience. Oh yeah, and her official bio actually tells us that her "most joyous triumph is being grandmother to Melissa's son, Cooper, who was born on December 1, 2000." Now, tell me, who wouldn't want her for your own grandmother, mother - or crazy aunt, for that matter - who says exactly what comes to her mind whenever she thinks it.

Another good indicator she's got a heart of gold comes during her curtain call when she gives the audience a surprisingly unfettered glimpse into her personal life: She tells of a weekly phone call with her friends Kathy Griffin (who consistently credits Rivers for her own successful career) and Cher. She asked Cher, Joan says, when she's going to retire and that particular entertainment legend answered: "We're performers. We don't retire. We perform."

"I'm 77 years old and I've been doing this for 46 years," Rivers tells her rapt audience, who've leapt to their feet for a resounding ovation. "And I love every minute of it. Thank you for letting me perform for you, Nashville. God bless you all!"

Inspirational. Now there's a great word to describe Joan Rivers.

- Joan Rivers, in performance at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Friday, February 2. For further details, visit the website at www.tpac.org.



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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis